A Bleak Beginning

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

A Bleak Beginning

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

A Bleak Beginning
New books dissected over email.
June 23 2003 8:23 AM

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

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Dear David,

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Am I just cranky about waiting for three hours in line in the rain to buy the new Harry Potter, or is Rowling off her game this time around? When H.P. and the Goblet of Fire came out three years ago, readers complained that the success of Rowling's previous three Harry Potter novels had gone to her head (or her word processor—or her quill)—What was this Hagrid-size monster? 734 pages? Come on! Did she think she was too good to be edited? Cutting out a few hundred pages, grumped my friends, would have made it a much better book.

Were you one of those sourpusses? I sure wasn't. I couldn't see anything I wanted cut. To me, more pages meant more scope for Rowling's deliciously inventive jokes, her alternately cozy and ominous atmospherics, her intense, allegorical climaxes. But that was ages ago, before the two movies sent the Harry Potter phenomenon out of the imagination and into the toyshops, making it impossible to escape even if you couldn't or didn't read.

When Harry Potter first hit it big, I was thrilled. The series is a fine example of my favorite literary genre, children's fantasy. For years, I'd been trying to persuade grownups to read the greats: the Scottish Victorian mystic George Macdonald (The Princess and the Goblin), the turn-of-the-century Fabian socialist Edith Nesbit (Five Children and It,), Rowling's amazing contemporaries Diana Wynne Jones (the "Chrestomanci" series), and Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials), who were at it long before she was. I even seem to remember pushing Jones' Dogsbody at you a decade ago. You didn't read it, did you? If so, you were one of the few—usually, people just rolled their eyes at me. Why would adults want to read children's books? With Rowling's success, I thought I finally had a chance. But most of my friends just wanted more Harry Potter.

Well, so did I. However … I never thought it would happen, but I may be tired of him. Could it be Rowling is too?

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The problem, in part, lies with the movies. Do you agree? For me, it's hard to read the books now without hearing those awful child actors flub the lines. And even though the films were full of actors I love (Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid, Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall), I resent having their faces superimposed on the characters I'd imagined. Even Rowling's witty touches—the talking portraits, the touchy ghosts, the Floo transportation system, the Every Flavor Beans—seem almost stale now, as if her sensibility has entered the mass mind and started to fade into cliché.

Another problem is that by now, in Book 5, Rowling has a ton of long-term plot machinery to manipulate. Didn't you find that the Dursley stuff—Harry's meany-pants uncle, aunt, and fatso cousin—and the nitty-gritty politics of the war she's set up between good and evil burdened the first 150 or so pages, slowing Harry and his buddies down before they can get on their way to Hogwarts? After that the story starts to pick up, although the pacing feels a bit weird to me: at once sluggish and forced.

But maybe this new book will get better. I haven't gotten anywhere near the final, 870th page of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and the truth is, I never much liked the way the novels begin, anyway—in the Muggle (or nonmagical) world of the Dursleys, where the orphaned young Harry lives when he's not at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The humor in those scenes is way too broad for me—even mean-spirited.

Still, what's with all the secrecy? Why won't the grownup wizards tell Harry what he needs to know? It seems unmotivated to me, only there to drive the plot along. After all, Harry's 15 now. He's battled the Dark Lord, Voldemort, more often, more successfully, than many a more experienced wizard. He's Harry Potter, for heaven's sake! Surely they'd let him in on their meetings by now.

Is the book showing the same strain as Harry, trapped in childhood and feeling all too old for its context? Or am I just grumpy about the rain?

Polly

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can e-mail him atmovies@slate.com. Polly Shulman is a free-lance writer living in New York. She wrote a children's book column for Salon and the Voice Literary Supplement.